Still up in the air about flying

Kevin Cowherd

September 30, 1992|By Kevin Cowherd

A few months ago, after a flight from Baltimore to Miami during which I clung to the arm of a startled nun for two hours, I wrote a column about being a nervous flier.

The flying itself is not what scares me. What scares me is the prospect of the plane plummeting 33,000 feet and slamming into a desolate ravine, after which it'll take weeks for teams of emergency personnel on burros to drag out what remains of the charred bodies -- assuming they haven't all been picked clean by vultures.

Anyway, unlike most everything else that appears with my byline, that column on flying actually provoked a response from many readers.

And some of them actually roused themselves from their normal day-to-day torpor to write in of having similar fears.

The most common advice given me by these good people was: Start drinking heavily during the flight.

Which I already knew.

Are you kidding? The minute that plane goes hurtling down the runway, I start signaling the flight attendant to bring the beverage cart.

Of course, these flight attendants all have an attitude.

The last time I called for a drink during takeoff, this one attendant unbuckled her seat belt and came running up the aisle and said: "Sir, FAA regulations prohibit us from serving beverages until we attain cruising altitude."

FAA regulations, FAA regulations . . . look, I have had it up to here with the damn FAA!

How picky can these people get? I don't see what the big deal is serving one lousy beer as we're hurtling down the runway at 175 miles per hour.

With a little bit of hustle, I'm sure the flight attendant can make it back to her seat by the time we lift off.

The problem with drinking on a flight is that once you land, you may find yourself stumbling off the plane with your arm draped around your new friend Freddie from Cleveland, the two of you singing "Waltzing Matilda."

This can create a negative impression for anyone there to greet you, such as the partner of the law firm you're interviewing at or (God forbid) your wife.

That's why I was more interested in the self-help books and tapes that some kind readers sent in response to that earlier column.

The fact is, though, that many of these Conquer-Your-Fear-of-Flying programs are eeriely similar.

The first thing they do is throw a bunch of statistics at you. You've heard them all before: The odds are 1 in 10 million that your flight will crash, flying is 19 times safer than traveling by car, blah, blah, blah.

All of which may be true. But here's how I look at it: If my car is skidding on a slick road toward a telephone pole, there's a chance I might actually walk away from the accident.

Whereas if we're 27,000 feet above the Rockies and all four engines suddenly drop off because some mechanic forgot to check the U-bolts, there is a good chance that not only will we not walk away, but that there will be so little left of us that they'll need to vacuum up the remains.

The other thing all these self-help programs do is trot out the names of famous people who are also scared to fly. Like this is supposed to make you, the average Joe, feel better.

The one name you see on every list is John Madden, the CBS sportscaster.

But let me ask you something. If all these programs are so good, how come John Madden is still taking a bus everywhere he goes?

Last I heard, you couldn't get Madden on a plane if you held a gun to his temple.

You think me clinging to your arm during a flight is no picnic?

How'd you like to have Madden whimpering next to you and knocking back double martinis and screaming: "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!" each time the plane hits an air pocket?

The guy probably goes, what, 280 pounds? Probably has a grip like a bear trap, too.

Finally, a lot of these self-help programs tell you to replace negative thoughts with positive statements, which you can say aloud to calm yourself.

The one I chose was: We will not crash and burn, we will not crash and burn, we will not crash and burn . . .

Then I used it on a recent flight to New York and the guy sitting next to me started getting real nervous.

Finally he turned to me and whispered: "Is there something wrong with the plane?"

"THERE'S SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE PLANE?" I said, apparently a bit too loudly.

Well. You talk about a rumor spreading like wildfire. It wasn't a real relaxing flight after that, I'll tell you.

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